Dead & Company Pay Tribute to Late NBA Legend Bill Walton: ‘Biggest Deadhead in the World’

Music

The Hall of Fame activist died on Monday at age 71 from cancer.

Bill Walton appears on stage as John Mayer and Bob Weir of Dead and Company perform at The Forum on December 31, 2015 in Inglewood, Calif.

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Bill Walton was a lot of things: the 1977-78 NBA MVP, two-time league champion, sportscaster and, perhaps most famously, a huge Deadhead. The 6′ 11″ center known as “Big Red” for his flowing, shaggy locks died on Monday (May 27) at age 71 following a battle with cancer.

In a tribute to their biggest superfan, the surviving members of the Grateful Dead honored Walton in an Instagram post on the Dead & Company feed, saying, “Fare you well, fare you well, we love you more than words can tell. Bill was an irreplaceable force and spirit in our family. Father Time, Rhythm Devil, biggest deadhead ever. Over 1000 shows and couldn’t get enough. He loved this band and we loved him.”

The tribute continued, “We will miss our beloved friend, @BillWalton, deeply. Rest in peace and may the four winds blow you safely home. 🌹💀⚡️.” The post included several pics of Walton in his signature tie dye vibing out at Dead shows over the years, including several shots of him in elaborate, colorful costumes honoring the times he dressed up as “Father Time” for Dead shows on New Year’s Eve.

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Walton would often weave his love of the Dead into his broadcasts, wearing tie dye Dead shirts while spinning sometimes trippy, hard-to-follow yarns from the sidelines in between calling shots.

Dead singer/guitarist Bob Weir also posted his own memories, including pics with Walton from over the years with the message, “Yo Bill, thanks for the ride. Thanks for the wonderful friendship, the years of color commentary – and the Hall of Fame existence that you wore like headlights. Bon voyage ol’ buddy. We’re sure gonna miss you – but don’t let that slow you down…”

Drummer Mickey Hart weighed in as well, calling Walton, “The best friend I ever had. He was an amazing person, singular, irreplaceable, giving, loving. His love for our music was beyond description. He called himself the luckiest man in the world but it was us who were lucky — to know him, to share the adventure with him,” Hart wrote. “He was the biggest Deadhead in the world and used our music as the soundtrack to his life. After our shows, he would regularly send messages that said, ‘thank you for my life.’ Over 1000 shows, he just couldn’t get enough. Bill had an incredible passion for drums. After any meal at his house, we would play. There was nothing like a Bill Walton… nothing.”

Fellow drummer/percussionist Bill Kreutzmann was equally effusive, posting a pic of Walton on stage during a show helping out behind the kit, writing, “There are incredible stories about Bill Walton that I promised him I would only tell after he passed away, and it’s not nearly that time yet because before we laugh, first we must allow ourselves to cry. Darn it. This is a mournful day. This is a period of mourning.”

Not only did Walton gladly pay tribute to late San Francisco promoter and Dead supporter Bill Graham by slipping into the Father Time outfit, but he also slid in references to the band during broadcasts, occasionally sat in for DJ sets on the group’s SiriusXM channel and was even inducted into the Dead’s Hall of Honor, which the big man said was his highest honor.

Kreutzmann noted that, of course, Walton was an NBA legend, but in the Dead orbit, “he was just a fan – and that made him a legend here, too. In many ways, he was our number one fan… but Bill would’ve taken issue with that ranking because, while he won many awards in his storied basketball career — including MVP — Bill insisted that the Grateful Dead was not a competition — and that all Deadheads were equal. By that same notion, as I flash through decades of adventures with him, there isn’t one favorite memory. They all shine through. And they’re all important, because they all brought us both real happiness. And that’s special. That’s friendship.”

Kreutzmann said that Walton was a “genuine fan that became a genuine friend and someone I always looked up to. But his towering presence was more than just literal. Whenever I play, there will now always be a hole where a seat should be, about ten rows back, center, where Bill used to stand, eyes closed, arms raised, while he felt the music running through him. That was a happy place for him and seeing him out there was one of mine. We never did have a hard time finding him in the crowd.”

He added, “Similarly, when he walked into a room, you knew it – but it wasn’t because of his size. It was because of that laugh of his that broadcasted joy, and it was his easygoing smile that beamed sunshine across any space he ever entered. So, yeah, losing Bill is an irreplaceable loss and, in simple terms, I am heartbroken. When somebody means that much to you, when their friendship is that important – that’s called love. I loved Bill Walton. As we say in the land of the Dead: May the four winds blow him safely home. There are things you can replace. And others you cannot. Bon voyage, old friend, I love you.”

As Kreutzmann suspected, Walton was, indeed, lauded in his death as both an NBA superstar and beloved broadcaster, but just as importantly, as the biggest Deadhead ever.

Check out the tributes below.

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